Chen I-Jun, Soochow University, Suzhou

A Human Science

Prof. Chen in the classroom.

“Psychology is a human science, and its ultimate goal is to serve humans,” according to Chen I-Jun (Evelyn), a professor in the School of Education at Soochow University in mainland China. That focus on serving others inspired her to introduce Soochow University psychology students to service-learning. With support from the United Board, she designed a project to train undergraduate psychology students in techniques to reduce social anxiety in children with learning disabilities.

“Service-learning is still an emerging concept in China,” Dr. Chen said, so she presented it to her students as a practice with three layers. “The first layer is meaningful service, which means using knowledge from the university to serve the community. The second layer is practical learning, which asks students to walk out of the campus and practice their professional skills in the community. The third layer is reflection, encouraging students to reflect on their practice, which is critical to their progress.”

Soochow University students practice techniques to reduce social anxiety in children.

These three layers also guided Dr. Chen’s approach to the course. In the classroom, she and her graduate students built up undergraduates’ knowledge of cognitive behavior strategies to reduce social anxiety. “Socially anxious children can learn to perceive and adjust their emotions, learn to relax, learn to smile and face their anxiety,” she said. She also prepared her students to assume new roles. “They needed to adjust from being a student to a mental health worker for children,” she said, “and that means maintaining self-discipline and self-management, while also getting along with the children in their care.” The young children had their own individual characteristics: shy, talkative, mischievous, and in one instance, very blunt. “One child said, ‘This activity is boring, I would rather go home and do my homework!’” Dr. Chen recalled. “My undergraduates needed to maintain their empathy and figure out the reason behind this child’s complaint.”

Dr. Chen emphasized the value of reflection. “Although some universities in China organize social practice activities, they often lack the layer of reflection,” she said. “Summary and reflection are critical for a service-learning project.” Reflection deepens the learning experience, and helps students identify the characteristics they need to become competent, caring professionals. “The capacity for acceptance and empathy is the basic requirement to become an excellent psychological counselor,” Dr. Chen said. “Through our intervention, our undergraduates learned to show their empathy naturally and to make the children feel they were accepted and supported.”

The Soochow University course took place over several intensive months, but Dr. Chen expects long-term benefits. “Our project not only helps students make progress in building knowledge, but it also makes them conscious of serving society. That is an important outcome for college students.”